The iconic Belgian designer talks to Dazed Digital about Herman Hesse, the beauty of getting older and the emotional power of jewellery.
Usually cast as the dark queen of Belgian fashion, it’s a surprise to see Ann Demeulemeester’s eyes fairly twinkle when describing the unorthodox use of diamonds in her stunning fine jewellery line (exclusively available at Dover Street Market). “You know, Antwerp is famous for its diamonds. When they asked me, “Could you imagine designing with diamonds?” it was a language far away from myself because I had never worked with it before. So I wanted to start from zero, forgetting the establishment’s ideas of diamonds. A diamond is a beautiful stone – a child would look to it like a star, and try to hold the star, to cage it and wear it. So you wear the stones and it becomes really pure.”
Such a poetic statement is typical for this passionate designer, who has been forging her own soulful, romantic aesthetic for over 20 years now. Like her eternal muse and best friend, Patti Smith, Demeulemeester pioneered the androgynous look with her masterful melding of masculine and feminine elements and has been showing her menswear and womenswear in one show for a decade now, something venerated brands like Balenciaga are starting to follow. Her S/S 09 show was a charming and frothy affair that used the fairytale of an imaginary princess as a starting point. This manifested in the use of embellishment with snowflakes picked out in crystals and the expansion of her colour scheme to include orange, yellow and saffron in addition to her trademark black and white. She sat down with Dazed Digital over tea at the Rose Bakery.
Dazed Digital: Is making jewelry personal for you?
Ann Demeulemeester: It’s something I wanted to do for a long time. It’s the question of finding the right moment, meeting the right people so in summer 2007, I started with this fine jewellery line. So first thing I made was my emblematic feather with a silver chain.
Jewellery is something that has to do with emotion. That aspect of jewellery really interests me. I had to find my own language in jewellery that was important to me, it really had to be what I would love to have myself. Pieces one can change himself or herself to make it more personal. I really see it as treasures that remain for a long time.
DD: You’ve deviated from your monochrome palette for your S/S 09 collection. Tell us about your experiments with colour this season
AD: It came naturally. There was something that had to do with mysticism that led me to want colour. I wanted colour and shape to be quite abstract, the exaggeration of colour. To push it further, we exaggerated the shapes also so it was like clouds of colour, not just the garment in colour.
The idea to want colours came from Herman Hesse’s ‘Siddhartha’ book where I started. Of course it was just the beginning idea and things go far away from it.
DD: Your S/S 09 Men’s show was also very poignant with the use of older gentlemen in the show. Was that also from Hesse?
AD: Yes, he also wrote poems and text about the beauty of getting older. I saw pictures of Herman Hesse and I really liked the man. He was so beautiful in his fragility, so old and so fragile and so rich in spirit that I had to do something with it! I thought it would be beautiful to do a show where you have the fragility of the very young and the fragility of the very old and put them together. The older you get, the wiser the clothes would be. The young would be black and the older would be beautiful, shining and white, like an angel. It was an experiment, I wanted to break the rule of the young and the beautiful. I wanted to show the old and the beautiful.
The oldest model was 87! I thought he was the most beautiful. It was amazing to me how proud they were, they had so much dignity. To be able to give them that made me so happy that day. They were so much more proud than the young guys. It was amazing to see their grace. It was a real experience.
DD: When you first came to London with the Antwerp Six, it was the beginning of the explosion of punk. Do you still see that energy today?
AD: It’s completely different, I cannot compare it at all. Of course there is energy here but it’s harder to find, there is too much. When I came at the end of the Seventies, it was amazing! The energy of the music, discovering that. Now people look to the internet , they know everything, there’s nothing to discover anymore. In the eighties, when there was a new record, it was like wow! There’s a new record! You would wait, buy it, dance and go crazy! You don’t have this feeling anymore.
DD: You started your business at the beginning of a major economic crisis…
AD: Absolutely. Everybody told me, “Are you crazy? It’s a crisis and you’re starting now!” but I couldn’t care less! I think crisis is a good moment to act, it’s not a moment to panic and do nothing, it’s the moment where the good will be divided from the bad.
DD: We find ourselves in financial meltdown again. How do you think fashion responds to this? Will it be a time of great creativity?
AD: I hope so. I still make an effort to do a beautiful dream for people and I feel it works because I’ve sold more than ever. I just try to be honest. I want to give something realistic. To give things to wear, to dream to be happy with. To add something to one’s life.
DD: You were one of the first designers to show both men’s and womenswear in the same show. But do you find the process of designing for men different? You fit your womenswear on yourself and friends, do you fit your menswear on your husband and son?
AD: Only difference is that you work for a completely different body. But for the rest, the process is more or less the same. But I’ve been showing menswear and womenswear together for 10 years now. Women always look more beautiful when there are men around, they reinforce each other.
My husband fits every single piece. I need human feelings to fit garments, I couldn’t do it just like on an object, it’s too close to our body. It’s like a skin you are making so you need one’s feelings to make a garment.
DD: You’ve been in this business for over 20 years now. How do you see your position in the fashion world has evolved and what are your hopes for the future?
AD: I hope I add something that was not there. The most beautiful compliments from I get from people is that I added something to their consciousness when they put on my clothes. As for my place in the fashion world, the beautiful thing was that when I started, I was revolting, doing my own thing, I didn’t look too much to fashion. Now the fashion world is respecting me for that now. They know that it is one soul, one line continuing.
The future is open and I never make plans. As long as it’s interesting to me, I try to live my life to the fullest.